Thursday, June 21, 2012

Fate of Fairbanks' historic Masonic Temple in limbo

One of the iconic buildings along the Fairbanks riverfront is the old Masonic Temple at 809 First Ave.

Fraternal organizations were extremely popular in Alaska's fledgling towns. The Arctic Brotherhood,
Eagles, Elks, Freemasons, Moose, and Odd Fellows were all represented. I'm surprised that there was never an E. Clampus Vitus chapter in Alaska.

According to a 1921 edition of "Mackey's History of Freemasonty" there were seven chartered Masonic lodges in Alaska by the 1920s. Freemasonry arrived in Fairbanks soon after the city’s founding, and although the local chapter (Tanana Lodge) did not receive its charter until 1908, it is certain that the men who started the lodge were active Masons long before the local chapter was officially recognized.

The nomination form submitted to the National Register of Historic Places for the Fairbanks Masonic Temple states that the building that would become the Freemasons' home was constructed in 1906 as the Tanana Commercial Company store, but two years later the Masonic Lodge purchased the structure. The Masons added a basement and also constructed an extension to the rear and a second story. 

In 1916 the lodge undertook a major renovation and installed a pressed metal façade to the front of the building, giving it a Renaissance Revival appearance. (Renaissance Revival is an artistic style that draws its inspiration from a variety of classical Italian styles.) 

Pressed metal ornamentation and facades were extremely popular during the early 1900s, and there used to be thousands of buildings across the U.S. and Canada with pressed metal exteriors.The facades were an easy, quick and inexpensive way to add style to otherwise plain buildings.  Pressed metal could mimic brick, stone and concrete, as well as intricate floral and other decorative motifs.

According to old catalogs, a metal façade for the Masonic temple would have cost about $665 (plus shipping) in 1916. The inflation- adjusted price today would be about $13,000.

Some buildings in Skagway, Juneau and other older Alaskan towns have pressed metal decorative elements such a cornices and windows, but as far as I know, this Fairbanks building is the only one in Alaska with an entirely-metal front façade. (The Masonic Temple in Dawson City also has a pressed metal façade.) 

The Masonic Temple was one of the centers for activities in early Fairbanks, and numerous community events were held there. When President Warren Harding visited Fairbanks in 1923 to celebrate the completion of the Alaska Railroad, he spoke from the front steps of the Temple.

Local Masons were justly proud of the building, and the temple was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.  However, the cost to bring it up to modern building codes eventually became too expensive for the lodge to bear and the Masons decided to sell the building. Local businessman Harold Groetsema (owner of Big Daddy’s BarB-Q across the street) purchased the building in 2009 with the hope of turning the first floor into a banquet hall.

Harold told me that after beginning renovations he uncovered some interesting architectural details. For instance, ceiling sprinklers had been installed in the main hall and a suspended ceiling put in to hide the pipes. Tearing into the ceiling he discovered the original pressed metal ceiling tiles still in place. Unfortunately, Harold has also found the cost of renovating and bring the building up to code is pretty much cost prohibitive.

He, like the Masons, would love to preserve the Masonic Temple, but at this point its fate is in limbo.

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